This may seem strange, but I think it would be useful to offer yet another look at Barack Obama's sermon to his flock at the United Church of Christ convention. This time around, let's find out what Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson -- former top scribe for W Bush -- thought of the religious images and language in the speech and, this is more important, what the speech suggests about religious issues on the left that the mainstream press will end up covering. First of all, here is Gerson's summary of the turf that Obama is willing to explore, as opposed to some other Democrats on the scene:
He spoke frankly of his faith: "I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him." Obama recognized the central role of religion in the history of American social reform, from women's rights to the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement. And he made a sophisticated distinction between the religious right and American evangelicalism, rather than lumping them together as a monolithic menace.
For Democrats, the speech was a class in remedial religion.
The problem, of course, is that Obama was -- literally -- preaching to the liberal choir, in terms of the liberal Christians who were sitting in front of him as he spoke. The more interesting issue for Gerson is the degree to which Obama's sermon will interest a totally new audience, which is America's young evangelicals who live in a constant fear of being connected in any way with the Religious Right.
As is often the case, this leads us to scholar John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who believes there is a door here for Democrats.
Kind of. Gerson notes:
Survey research shows that evangelicals under 30 tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.
Now, as someone who has spent a decade-plus facing classrooms full of young evangelicals (for the most part), this rings true to me. However, it helps to know that many, perhaps most, young Christians are much more interesting in discussing liberalized laws on same-sex civil unions than a state-enforced change in the actual definition of "marriage."
There is room for political compromise here, but I have met very few young Christians who actually disagree with traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality and marriage. Would Democrats be willing to compromise and meet people in Middle-American pews in, well, the middle on this hot-button issue? Would the party's leadership be able to convince its secular/religious liberal alliance to compromise?
At the very least, writes Gerson, the left will have to consider -- in the wake of the Obama sermon -- taking at least three steps. You can read them for yourself, but I want to quote the third one. Hang on tight.
Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand. Given the current Democratic coalition, this doesn't seem likely. But some of us still remember the example of Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, whose liberal heart bled for all of the weak, including the unborn.
In other words, it is one thing to talk about the "legal, safe and rare" option on abortion policy, but that is not going to help Democrats reach out to young evangelicals who want actual compromise on public policies about when abortion is and is not legal. Once again, the issue here is whether Obama and other Democrats can afford to compromise to reach the middle.
The Religious Right is often asked to compromise, because that is how government works. In the wake of the Obama sermon, it is interesting to ponder the compromises that the Religious Left will need to make -- if Obama is serious.